From the Rehearsal Room….by Catrin Aaron
28 January 2016
Questions by assistant director Chelsey Gillard to actress Catrin Aaron playing ‘Mae’ in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
CG: How are rehearsals going?
CA: Very well thanks. It’s the end of our 3rd week of rehearsals in London. We’ve been in the rehearsal space at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre (which is enclosed. Mercifully.) and then we travel up to Mold this weekend. We did a run through of Act 1 today, which is looking great.
CG: You play Mae; who is Mae, and how does she relate to the other characters?
CA: Mae is married to Gooper, who is the eldest son of Big Daddy and Big Mama, and older brother to Brick. Mae and Gooper have five children and a sixth on its way, which is a huge cause of friction between Mae and sister in law Maggie, who is childless. In fact, most of what Mae is / does is a constant source of irritation and antagonisation to Maggie….. And the rest of the family for that matter!
CG: It would be very easy to portray Mae as very cold and calculating, but you have found an honesty to her – how did you do this, and was it difficult to see her redeeming features?
CA: Not at all. I think you have to find the honesty of the character you’re playing, and be truthful to their story. Otherwise you can just end up with a cartoon villain, which isn’t very interesting. Tennessee Williams has written a very real woman in Mae, with real thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears, and you have to honour that. It could be very easy to see Mae as calculating, and / or quite ridiculous, but whilst charisma and likability are by no means her strong points, there is a practicality and a survival instinct to her that I find sympathetic. There’s also a great deal of vulnerability there.
When you look into it, she’s a woman who’s family has suffered financial hardship and scandal; who has survived the Depression and knows the reality of existing without money and (almost just as importantly in 1950s Mississippi society) without reputation.
Also, the stakes are huge – they’re talking about the future of one of the biggest surviving cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta, and it’s at risk of being lost, from Mae and Gooper’s perspective at least, if it all goes to Brick and Maggie. There are also some very relatable themes of familial hurt and rejection in the play. So what drives her is completely understandable to me, but of course the play isn’t told from her perspective, so she can appear quite calculating with what she says and does!
I think the most important thing is that, whatever funny, attractive, or extremely unattractive, flaws and foibles Tennessee Williams has given these characters, we have to empathise and play them as human beings with all the contradictory, multi faceted elements of human behaviour that that entails.
CG: How have you prepared to play someone from the Deep South?
CA: A lot of research first of all. We’ve individually and collectively covered all topics related to the play, within the context of 1950s Mississippi. For example, Ryan (who’s playing Doc Baugh) looked into the diagnosis and treatment of cancer back then. Ian, who’s playing Reverend Tooker, looking into the dominant religions of the time and place; Gareth, who plays Brick, researched the perception and treatment of alcoholism, and so on.
I looked into what it meant to be a debutante and a lady in Mississippi society, which was wonderfully informative about Mae’s character and explains a lot about her motivations. I found some great stuff on Cotillion Balls and rituals and the whole experience of the Memphis Cotton Carnival. It’s always so helpful to know as best you can the society within which these characters exist; the traditions, social mores, conventions, restraints, socioeconomics, etc.
The next and important thing to tackle is the accent. We have a fantastic voice coach who comes in with examples of the accent, and then basically gets us to sit there reading our lines and conversing with her in said accent. I’ve been listening to a lot of the writer Eudora Welty, reading her own work, which is joyous. Eudora is actually from Jackson (Mae is from Memphis) but her accent, tone and musicality are perfect for the era, and Mae in particular.
Interviews and documentaries are also great for character and behaviour study. Where would we be without YouTube??
CG: What have you learnt from this week’s rehearsal?
CA: I have learnt that Abi, who plays Big Mama, does wonderful stand in child acting (till we get our real child actors next week), and that Egyptian Geese really love watching rehearsals…. and are really bloody loud!!!